The story of Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who served eight American presidents over three decades. The film traces the dramatic changes that swept American society during this time, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and beyond, and how those changes affected this man’s life and family.
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The idea of the butler as a trojan horse for social change is a compelling one, given the historical association of the role with passivity and compliance. Yet this tricky, complex film — a moral conundrum cloaked inside the buttery, soft-focus sheen of the classical Hollywood biopic — never fully throws its weight behind that viewpoint.
The minutiae of daily life and the haunting psychic recesses are all inseparable from the exercise of government power—and “The Butler” has the remarkable effect of making that power appear visible, as if the very air we breathe were suddenly given a tint.
In the film’s single most audacious sequence, Daniels cuts between the following scenes: one of the famous Woolworth’s sit-ins of 1960, in which Louis takes part; flashbacks to Louis and other activists preparing each other for the sort of racist threats they’ll receive at the sit-in; and shots of Cecil and other butlers preparing a dinner party for John F. Kennedy. Here Daniels situates a moment of political action between two very different scenes of role-playing…
In its use of means a totally calculated and boring "based on a true story" commercial product: a bit emotion with underscoring here, a bit drama there, and also a bit one-dimensional, anecdotically simplified American history for dummies.
First we had The Blind Side, then we had The Help, and now we have The Butler. What is Hollywood's fascination with movies about downtrodden and subjugated blacks? Would it kill them to make a biopic about someone like, say, George Washington Carver?
Mostly heavy handed, maudlin, and superficial - but every once in a while things fall into place for some electrifyingly effective moments. Some of the stunt casting works; some doesn't. I enjoyed John Cusack, Alan Rickman, and Jane Fonda. Robin Williams as Eisenhower just didn't quite work.
With the asinine way this film casts presidents, I was fully ready to see Chris Rock as Barack Obama. The presidents themselves look like parodies and are so shortchanged to being like background figures of the civil rights. But that is one of the many problems in this emotionally-manipulative, overly-simplistic film that is like civil rights Cliff Notes. Can't believe I heard gasps during this film.
It may feel like a TV-movie of the week, with a parade of big name actors in cameo roles as presidents and first ladies, but it also has a heart a mile wide, and it goes a long way. THE BUTLER is somewhat innocent in many ways, but in that regard it reflects in protagonist in an almost accidental way. Equal turns goofy and earnest, it's an ultimately moving film that wins its audience through sheer force of will.
Superficially gleans over context-informing histories to produce a poorly developed but well performed portrait of a man, who is poignantly presented as the epitome of a dignified black American amid 20th century racial tensions. (2.5)
66/100 - Good.
66/100 - Good.